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‘Dad, you have five days before they adopt us’ How a Mariupol father survived a Russian POW camp and traveled to Moscow to save his kids
Interview by Svetlana Martova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
Yevhen is a former Ukrainian contract soldier from Mariupol. He has three children: 12-year-old Matvey, 7-year-old Sviatoslava, and 5-year-old Alexandra. After Yevhen and his wife divorced, the children stayed with their dad. At the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, Yevhen and his children spent a month hiding from Russian shellfire in basements; after that, they were forcibly evacuated along with other Mariupol residents. Yevhen was ultimately put in a prison camp in Olenivka, while his children were taken to a boarding house near Moscow — and very nearly sent to live with a Russian family. Yevhen recounted to Meduza how he survived Russian captivity, saved his children, and escaped with the three of them to Latvia.
Yevhen, 39 years old
[On February 24], I was working the early shift [Editor’s note: Yevhen worked as a crane operator]. [When I learned that the war had begun,] I immediately thought about what to do with the kids. I dashed out of work and headed home. I got all of the essentials — food we could cook in a hurry, water, and warm clothes. Then we moved down to the basement. I didn’t even have to explain to [the kids] what was going on — they understood. I just tried to comfort them.
When the shelling started getting closer, I realized that if our building was hit, it would collapse and we’d be buried [in the ruins]. So I decided we needed to get further away. We went to my ex-wife’s parents’ house, stayed with them for a few days, and then the shelling got closer again. We went down to the basement of their building. There, all six of us slept on an inflatable mattress.
Soon, my boss [from work] contacted me and offered to let us come stay with him just a few streets away. His apartment is on the first floor, and it’s laid out in such a way that makes it less vulnerable to shelling. So we moved there and stayed for a fairly long time, until March 19.
[When we were in my grandparents’ basement,] we ran around and played with another girl who was there. When there was electricity, we drew pictures. When it went out, we drew pictures using flashlights.
But mostly we just sat and talked. I tried to comfort my little sisters, to try to make it easier on them. I told them everything would be okay, that this would all be over soon, and that the sounds were just thunder, not explosions. They believed me at first.
Matvey, Yevhen's son
[After many of our neighbors were killed by shellfire], we wanted to leave the city, but we didn’t have a car. My boss and I were ready to pay whatever amount of money it took, but nobody wanted to take us. Fuel was insanely hard to come by.
Then one day, a shell flew in through the kitchen and the bathroom [of my boss’s apartment] and landed in the hallway where we were hiding. After that, I decided to take the kids to a shelter in a nearby hospital.
The hospital had several shelters areas. The one where we stayed was meant to hold 75, but when we moved in, it had 90 people, and eventually there were about 140. There were children, pregnant women, and quite a few elderly people. The room was terribly drafty, but it was still safer [than the apartment].
[At first, it was relatively calm,] but then the shelling attacks got more intense. There were [dead] people just lying on the streets, a lot of them; it was a road of death.
On April 7, the children were sitting next to the entrance [of the bomb shelter] with a lantern, playing and drawing. Two soldiers wearing white bands and [self-proclaimed] Donetsk People’s Republic chevrons came in. They said that Chechen units would soon be coming to our shelter to conduct a ‘cleanup operation,’ and that they didn’t recommend staying here. They said, “You have half an hour to evacuate.” That was it.
We went on foot from the bomb shelter to the local music school [the evacuation assembly point]. From there, we were taken to some kind of village council where there were several large tents set up. It felt like we were in a different country. Everyone was cheery, the letter Z was plastered everywhere, and it didn’t feel like there was a war going on — everyone was just living their lives. But they told us nobody could stay at this camp, because it was already overcrowded.
So they sent us further — to a checkpoint station. They confiscated all of our sharp objects and started searching our bags. They looked through everything — even in our socks. They started looking through my documents, and saw that I was former military. They [practically] rubbed their hands together: “Well, well, well.” Then they locked me and my kids in a separate room, told us to wait, and left with our documents. We sat there until evening.
Up until the end, I was hoping common sense would win out. After all, I hadn’t hidden the fact that I served — I had my military ID and my passport on me.
Then a bus came [for everybody who had been in the bomb shelter], as well as a separate car for me. They told me, “Don’t you worry, you’re just going away for a few hours to get things sorted with your documents.” I took the documents, including my children’s birth certificates. I got Matvey and the girls settled in the car and asked a woman [I knew] from the bomb shelter to look after them; I was hoping to be back in just two or three hours. They took me to the village of Bezimenne near the city of Novoazovsk, where they had already interrogated other people [at a military base].
When I went [into the building where they did interrogations], there were two young men sitting on a bench. I later learned that they were [Ukrainian] conscripts. Their hands were tied behind their backs and their eyes were covered with tape. They were facing the wall, and a third was being interrogated and beaten.
[After the Russian soldiers interrogated me,] they tied me up, put a baseball cap over my face and put me in a car, and put the two other guys there along with me.”
They took us to the Novoazovsk temporary detention facility and put us up against a wall. Then some guy came out and started escalating things: “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourselves into. It’s gonna be bad: I’m going to ask you questions, and if I see that you’re lying, I’ll either bash in your kneecaps or stab you in whatever part of your body I choose.” They took one of the other guys before me, and I heard him getting beaten. Then they called in too, and I explained everything just as I had before. They didn’t touch me, but I did spend another day lying in the cell with my arms and legs tied.
They untied me the next day, when they brought me in for another interrogation. First they photographed me, then they led me to the cell. We were there for a couple more days, then they crammed all 17 of us into a minibus, like animals, and brought us to the Donetsk Organized Crime Unit, where they photographed us all again and then took our fingerprints.
There were several investigators there, and they each took one of us into their office. They asked me the same standard questions: “What’s your relationship to the Azov Battalion? And to the Ukrainian National Guard?” I explained the situation again.
Then they took me to a six-person cell that already had about 60 people in it. Water and air were the biggest problems. Everyone breathed through the crack between the door and the floor, and practically nobody spoke, because we were trying to save oxygen. The employees there bought us two loaves of bread and two bottles of water. We sat there like that for about 24 hours.
After that, the same investigator called me back in and said that they had printed something incorrectly in my statement and that I needed to sign the corrected version. Naturally, they didn’t give me time to read it. Then they took us all to various police stations in Donetsk.
The next day, after we went to a hospital for X-rays, they took us to a temporary detention facility. It was a bit more comfortable there: the cell had water and a toilet. We could at least wash ourselves. The next day, April 11, they started taking us out. And there outside the detention facility, just like in movies about special forces, there were these two humongous thugs. One asked me, “Did you kill Russians?” I said, “No, I didn’t even fire a gun.” He grabbed me by the neck, [slammed my head] against the bars, then started kicking me. He didn’t like the way I looked.
He beat me hard, then he made me sign a form that said I didn’t have any complaints against the detention facility. Then they put all 33 of us into a police vehicle and took us to Olenivka.
Before they took Dad away, he left us his cell phones. I was able to turn on one of them and find Dad’s boss’s number and call him. But then the phone stopped working and I couldn’t call anymore. Since Dad’s friend [from the bomb shelter] didn’t have our documents, we were taken from Bezimenne to the Central Novoazovsk Hospital. The doctor’s there, like, cared for us so we wouldn’t get sick. There were no exams; they just gave us some vitamins at lunch to make our intestines work. After some time, a man came — I think from social services — and said, “You’re going to go to a camp for a little while.”
At that point, I was exhausted — I just wanted this nightmare to end as soon as possible so I could get back to my children. I wasn’t much worried about anything else.
They brought us to Olenivka on a bus. [Eventually,] they took all 56 of us to the punishment cell — a six-person cell where we spent about 10 days. We drank industrial water whose origin was unclear and ate with no spoons: bread crusts on dirty dishes. You couldn’t quite call it food; we ate it because we needed to eat something. Then they took us to the barracks. There were 485 people living there, sleeping on the floor. They also put us to work. That was the only way to get cigarettes, pieces of lard, and other food. We dug holes, cleaned, cut the grass, and planted stuff in a garden.
In Olenivka, the guards all had their own weird things. Some of them would make us sing the DNR anthem, and would bring anybody who refused to the gate and thrash them on the legs. When we sang, they filmed us. Anyone who sang badly was ordered to leave and sing again. They also “trained” us at night by forcing us to run.
Then they started sending people away from the camp in large groups, four each day, because 2,700 more people were slated to arrive. And the limit in the prison was 2,000. Then the Azovstal defenders started to arrive, and they moved the rest of us back to the punishment cell.
On May 26, they released me and my cellmates with no explanation. I had spent exactly 45 days in Olenivka.
The last bus from Olenivka to Donetsk left at 5:00 pm, and it was already later than that when they released us. [I had heard that] a lot of people who didn’t make it in time for the bus had to sleep right at the bus stop. There were some cases when guys were brought right back [to the cell] in the morning. So one of the other guys and I decided to go [to Donetsk] on foot.
[When we got to Donetsk the next day], the [other] guy was quickly issued his documents, while I waited half the day for mine. Then a woman came and gave me my documents and said, “Your children’s birth certificates aren’t here, because at 5:00 am today, your children flew to Moscow.” I was hysterical — my children were taken away the same day I was released!
I was given the number for social services, which was the agency responsible for their departure. I didn’t have a local SIM card, and there was no way to buy one [due to the long lines]. But I managed to use the phone of a soldier who I met outside. The social services people convinced me that the kids had been taken to Moscow for a health appointment and would be brought back soon. They comforted me and gave me the number of the people looking after the children. I wrote a statement that said I would take the kids home and live with them at such-and-such address as soon as they returned.
After that, the other guy from the Olenivka prison invited me to his village near Novoazovsk. I stayed there for 10 days. The whole time, I spoke to the kids regularly from his wife’s phone.
They took us from the hospital — about 30 kids — on the very same day Dad was released. A man from social services gave us to the caregivers, and we all went on a huge bus to Rostov — to the airport. We had a “personal” plane there — its whole back half was empty. It was the first time my sisters and I had flown on a plane. At first it was really scary — my ears popped and I felt sick. But when I ate something, I started feeling better.
We flew to Moscow, and they took us to a camp called Polyana. It took a long time to get there. The camp is like a big health resort. A huge field in the middle of a forest, and a lot of big buildings there, like three-story apartments. There was also a soccer field, basketball and baseball courts, and exercise equipment. Also a ropes course you could climb on. And a playground, which we never went on — none of us liked it.
At Polyana, there were three caregivers, two nurses, and a director who would sometimes come to check whether everything was alright. Usually it was the caregivers who talked to us. We tried not to ask them about our parents, because we didn’t want to spoil our own moods. And at some point, Aunt Sasha — one of the caregivers — said, “Come to me.” I went over to her, and she called Dad. Then I talked to him for the first time since he’d been taken away. It was so great talking to Dad — we cried from happiness. We were so joyful. We talked for an hour, and we continued calling after that.
I realized I couldn’t keep relying on other people, so I decided to go back to Mariupol to see what state our home was in. The city was already under the control of the [self-proclaimed] DNR, so there was no more shelling.
When I got to Mariupol, I realized there was nothing for us to do there. The city stunk — there were human remains [in the streets], and dogs gnawing on human arms and legs. It’s very scary to see a dog running with an arm in its mouth. I called some friends who lived outside the city, and they took me in. I lived with them for two or three days and found work at a boarding house in Melekino doing minor repairs.
Then Matvey called me: “Dad, you have five days maximum to come pick us up — otherwise they’re going to adopt us.” The [social workers] had offered either to send them to a family or to an orphanage. He told them categorically that until he spoke to me, he wouldn’t make a decision. After that call, everything inside of me snapped. I started calling my friends, my acquaintances, anybody I could think of. I asked for money to get to Moscow, prayed, and tried to borrow some. But in wartime, that’s not realistic.
After my conversation with Matvey, I called social services. They told me that it was all nonsense, and that [the boy had misunderstood]. My relatives advised me to contact Russian volunteers. I called them and explained everything. The next day, they sent a car for me. The volunteers sent me 2,000 rubles ($32) through the driver, who took me from Melekine to Novoavosk, to the checkpoint. There, [the Russian soldiers] inspected me and harassed me a bit, and once we got to the Russian border, they took my passport. I sat there and waited for a long time. Then they undressed me and looked for tattoos. I told them, “I’m coming from Olenivka, from the filtration prison. Here’s my certificate.”
In the end, they let me cross the border, and I was given a free Russian SIM card. I called the volunteers. They told me to go to Taganrog, and from there to take the train to Rostov. From Rostov, I took a train to Moscow. The volunteers bought my ticket themselves.
When they learned about my situation, the volunteers wrote a letter addressed to Putin. And while I was on the way to Moscow, a representative of the Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner contacted me and said, “You’ve raised such a fuss throughout the whole country!” So I say, “Yeah — they’re trying to adopt my children!” And he goes, “What are you talking about? Your children just misunderstood.” Yeah, right — and I’m just some hick, I tell him.
I arrived in Moscow and was met at the station by a volunteer. I stayed the night at her place. In the morning, she handed me off to a different volunteer, and she brought me to Polyana. I had gotten from Melekino to the boarding house in two days, so I still had three to spare.
Polyana is a very serious place. Armed guards, a 15-meter fence, and everything fenced in — like a prison. It’s a kind of strange camp: wakeup is at 5:00 am, and 10:00 is lights out. They were fed some kind of green pills, and they had medical examinations — in 22 days, they had done enough tests to fill four A4 sheets of paper. I haven’t done that many tests in half a lifetime. The kids told me later that they were shown films about war, murder, and one about a girl who killed dogs and sewed their hides.
I don’t know what they were preparing them for. What do they need all those medical exams for? Just to know their health status? You’ll never be able to convince me that’s why.
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[When I got there], the Children’s Rights Commissioner’s representative who I’d spoken to on the phone came out, along with a psychologist. I told them how and why my children ended up in the boarding house, and where I was and what I was doing that whole time. I showed them all the documents confirming that I’m a legal representative [of the kids]. Then they let me on the territory. I spent half a day filling out statements and signing forms. When everything was ready, the kids packed their things and we finally left.
Some of the kids were told their families would be temporary, and some were told it would be permanent. A lot of people were adopted. My friend was adopted by that… Maria, the head of children’s rights (Editor’s note: Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian Presidential Children's Rights Commissioner).
While we were staying with a volunteer for a few days, other volunteers called us and asked where we wanted to go — to Mariupol or abroad. I chose the second option, and now we’re in Riga.
I don’t know what gave me strength this whole time. The main thing was not to lose my mind — screw everything else. My whole life, I’ve gotten used to fighting for [my kids]. I grew up practically without a family; I wanted a family my whole life. [Then] I had a lot of problems with my ex-wife: she cheated on me, and I turned a blind eye so that my kids would have a happy childhood. I’ve probably just grown accustomed to fighting for my family.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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